A culture consists of all those activities and artifacts which are organized by the “common pursuit of true judgment” as T.S. Eliot once put it. And true judgment involves the search for meaning through the reflective encounter with things made, composed, and written.
Knowing what to do means being rightly motivated, and right motivation means right feeling.
In all kinds of ways the emotions and motives of other people “come before us” in works of art and culture, and we spontaneously sympathize, by recreating in imagination the life that they depict.
Sir Roger Scruton
As Sir Roger Scruton explains in the epigraph above, our response to art is to “recreat[e] in imagination the life that [works of art] depict.” In that regard, art is inherently relational. Van Gogh sees a field of wheat in the sunlight, for example, with crows flying above against a blue sky with white clouds in the distinctive way that he sees it and captures it for us in the compact form of a painting. We, in turn, are drawn into the work by the arrangement of material. We can see what we see— that is, we can imagine the wheatfield with crows— only because the artist allows us to see it in that particular way. The artist embeds his judgment—what he sees and how he conveys what he sees—in the painting; and that judgment becomes the frame of reference for us as we contemplate the content of the work. By way of his work of art, then, the artist mediates between himself and us and between the world and us; he situates us together in the world. That is the sense in which art is inherently relational.
To say that an artist embeds his judgment in a work of art is not to say that we uncritically accept his judgment. Rather, in response to an artwork, we exercise our judgment as well. We rightly recoil when a painting obscures the human spirit or shocks our sensibilities. One recalls how disturbing, for example, are some of Picasso’s portrayals of female subjects. At times his judgment is simply raw and carnal; at other times, his judgment lies in the shocking distortion of anatomy, brutal in its abstraction and cruelly degrading because, if for no other reason, the viewer encounters nothing of the inner life of the woman portrayed nor the beauty of her physical form.
By such works we do not see more of life—more of the woman’s humanity, more of our humanity, more of the life we have. It is just the opposite: We end up seeing less, precisely because the artist obscures the spirit and shocks our sensibilities by brutalizing the body. What we ought to see is more of the world. What we ought to feel for the subject is sympathy, which, in turn, ought to radiate to ourselves who share the experience. Such works, however, do not free us to feel sympathy nor to move in any humane way toward the subject or toward one another in our shared response.
Pablo Picasso, The Lovers, oil on linen, 1923.
Picasso could be brutal, but Picasso could also be sublimely tender, as we find in his Two Lovers. The young man’s gentle advance, the young woman’s modest but subtle reception of his hand are played out amidst warm, inviting pastels. The sensual details are not carnal; they do not diminish our sight but collectively pull us into the scene and allow us to see the young love before us as true love—true, because of the tenderness internal to the scene. That tenderness is true to the lovers’ humanity and, thus, to ours. Their love is the kind of love that rightly situates the two subjects in the world and rightly situates us. We feel what we ought to feel in response to their feeling for one another. Tenderly is how Picasso saw the lovers, at least as evidenced in the painting. The feelings of tenderness is how we respond.
Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, oil on wood, 1903.
Or take note of how Picasso captured the mournful trio in The Tragedy. All the dramatic details give evidence that something terrible has happened: the blue that permeates everything we see, physically and emotionally; the woman’s back turned to the viewer; the adults’ heads bent, the boy’s head bent too. The cold, impersonal sea, the family’s ragged clothes, and their bare feet add yet more layers of burden to this unrelentingly blue scene.
Part of our encounter here is that we simply do not know what has happened. That makes the experience for us more difficult. Because Picasso has drawn us in, however, we want to know; and we want this poor family to find their way somehow. Of course, we are not at all certain the father can be consoled, even less so the mother. The son places his little hand on his father’s leg, but it seems weightless, ineffective. He holds his other hand up as if perhaps to offer something else, but his hand is empty. Nor is his face turned to his mother as if he might offer words as a balm. His poverty is complete; he not only wants for material good, he seems to have nothing to give.
Yet, the subtle movement in each of his two hands impels us to move with him and to move toward his parents. The boy has nothing, but he wants to give something. We can do nothing, but we long to do so. Having been drawn into the painting, we suffer—or, at least, ache to suffer—with the family in blue. We feel something of what they feel: the loss, the cold, and the loneliness—perhaps especially the loneliness, tangible among the family members even as they are together in space. That is the experience we are afforded, a genuine moment of sympathy, the most foundational response one makes to another’s suffering. Sympathy binds us to Picasso’s subjects. In achieving that, it binds us to one another, since it has become our shared experience.
As in any of his works, in The Tragedy, Picasso judges what he sees, and judges how to represent it. As argued earlier, we ought not always accept his judgment. His judgment here, however, evident in the arrangement of material in the painting, now rightly becomes ours. His painting frees us to see what he sees, and what we see is more of our humanity as it is discovered in that little family by the sea. His arrangement moves us sympathetically. By moving us to right feeling, it reveals, then, the relational nature of the artwork. We can now say that we not only see what we ought to see, we are moved the way we ought to be moved.
Picasso’s painting redeems what seems otherwise irredeemable. It situates us in a world marked by the blows of tragic loss. It redeems the world by making us feel for those who suffer in it and, by common experience, one another. Our shared response, in other words, is not to recoil from the world but to embrace it.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is co-founder and president of Cana Academy. He blogs weekly at www.canaacademy.org and is the author of History Forgotten and Remembered (2020) and The Life We Have Together: A Case for Humane Studies, A Vision for Renewal (2022).